Ipswich port smuggling gang face jail

A GANG of smugglers, including an Ipswich dock worker who made their multi-million pound plot possible, are today facing the prospect of long jail sentences.

A GANG of smugglers, including an Ipswich dock worker who made their multi-million pound plot possible, are today facing the prospect of long jail sentences.

COLIN ADWENT reports on a two-month trial at Ipswich Crown Court which ended with the conviction of six members of the cigarette-smuggling cartel snared by Suffolk's customs officers.

SEDUCED by the lure of easy money, crooked logistics clerk Vincent Wilson turned Ipswich docks into his version of the Bermuda Triangle.

The 32-year-old linchpin for a smuggling gang's plans, made millions of illegal cigarettes disappear from the Port of Ipswich by ghosting shipments off the docks.

Wilson had no idea what illegal goods were in the consignments, but was prepared to take the organised crime gang's cash anyway.

The ABP port worker was recruited by convicted murderer, Martin Eastabrook, also known as Barr, of Ashley Street, Ipswich, who also worked at the port.

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The 45-year-old, on licence for a murder he committed during a 1983 Great Yarmouth post office raid, was the link between Wilson and the gang's ringleaders John Draper, David Turner and Gary Frost.

Eastabrook worked for a timber importer at the port and then for ABP, its owner, on the west bank. Wilson knew him as he worked as a timber importer's clerk on the west bank.

Despite reducing his opportunity to earn more money through overtime, Wilson requested a move to Cliff Quay where three containers came in from Latvia as part of the smuggling operation.

The first container involved in the scam arrived in Ipswich on August 25, 2005. It held a legal cargo from Belarus, known as acrylic tow, a raw fibre often used in woven fabrics.

The container was said to be destined for OLC Solutions UK Ltd, a registered address for a secretarial and book-keeping service in Kent.

A temporary VAT number was applied for in the name of Martin Higgins. The container was cleared by customs on September 5, 2005.

However, the lorry was under surveillance by Ipswich-based customs officers and was parked up overnight at Tesco's in Copdock. Co-conspirator Reuben Butler, 49, of Slough, was seen meeting with the driver at the superstore the same evening.

The consignment was taken to a rented barn at Bateman's Farm, Great Leighs, near Braintree.

The acrylic tow would be used to refill later containers which held the smuggled cigarettes. They would then be returned to Ipswich docks as if they had never been away.

During the gang's trial it was alleged the second container the smugglers brought in was the first importation of cigarettes. The documentation said it was more acrylic tow.

The cargo arrived at Ipswich on September 8, 2005, the declared weight being the same as a third container which came in seven weeks later with millions of smuggled cigarettes.

The contraband was picked up that afternoon in the same lorry as the first container and delivered to the rented barn.

After the cigarettes were removed the container was returned to Ipswich docks.

On both occasions the whereabouts of the containers were not updated by Wilson on Ipswich docks' manual tracking system.

The system indicated the second container had never left the port and was updated retrospectively, claiming it was not moved from the docks until four days after it arrived.

On October 3, 2005, customs officers followed a van away from Bateman's Farm. When it was stopped and searched by police 200,000 counterfeit Lambert and Butler cigarettes were found.

Early on October 27, 2005, a container full of cigarettes valued at £1.2million in revenue, but said to contain acrylic tow, arrived at Ipswich docks from Latvia.

Customs officers set a trap for the conspirators by putting it on 'hold', which meant it was not to leave the port before being checked. They then waited to see what the gang would do.

Unaware of the ruse, Wilson, of Clacton-on-Sea, believed he could help smuggle it off the docks and return it before any inspection took place.

The port's manual tracking system relied on honesty and integrity, qualities which Wilson took advantage of.

Customs officers watched as the container was picked up around 6.15am on October 27 and taken to the rented barn at Bateman's Farm.

HM Customs, along with Essex police, raided the barn around 9.40am while the container was being reloaded with boxes of acrylic tow from the original August shipment.

Subsequent investigations showed Butler had even gone to Halford's in Braintree to buy two tubes of Superglue that day to repair the container's seal so it would appear not to have been broken.

In the barn the authorities found six million cigarettes including counterfeit packets of Lambert and Butler, counterfeit Silk Cut and Prince - a Scandinavian and Eastern European brand. The government revenue on them was worth £1.2million.

Wilson pleaded guilty last August. Frost pleaded guilty early in the trial, with Butler admitting his part in the plot shortly afterwards.

Draper, Turner, and Eastabrook were convicted after their trial at Ipswich Crown Court.

MIDDLE-MAN Martin Eastabrook linked Vincent Wilson and the gang's ringleaders - Frost, 52, of Harlow, Turner, 51, of Soham, Essex, and Draper, 48, of Chertsey, Surrey (aka Percy Smith).

On at least two occasions Eastabrook and Turner were seen at meetings after which Eastabrook went to see Wilson.

On August 25, 2005, the day the first container arrived at Ipswich, Eastabrook met with Frost outside Marks Tey railway station, where it is believed money again changed hands and instructions were given about the importation.

On September 10, 2005, Eastabrook, Turner, and Draper were captured on camera by surveillance teams outside Boss Hogg's truck stop on the old A12 at Copdock. Money was passed to Eastabrook at the meeting.

They also met at the same location nine days later, the weekend after the first two importations had been delivered.

On October 7, 2005, Wilson, Eastabrook, Turner and Draper, met at the Little Chef at Harlow just off the M11.

It is believed the meeting was about the arrangements for the importation of smuggled cigarettes in October.

Handwriting analysis of documents relating to Martin Higgins signature linked it to Frost's and Turner's handwriting. Frost, a trained printer has a previous conviction for forgery.

A search was carried out of Turner's home in Soham. During the search more documents linking him to the money transfer carried out in the name of OLC to a company in Latvia were found.

The home of Turner's daughter Annette, next door, was also searched and more documents concerning the three importations from Latvia to Ipswich were discovered in a tool chest, although she was never charged.

A mobile phone found in a desk during a raid on another property is believed to have belonged to Frost.

Turner and Frost were out of the country that day. They had flown to Bulgaria two days before the third importation at Ipswich docks.

The phone recovered during the raid had a text message relating to arrangements for the importation. The number of the mobile phone was found on phones which Wilson and Eastabrook had on them.

ON the day customs swooped ABP, the owners of Ipswich port, were forced to close the dock for about an hour to ensure nothing was taken away or arrived.

Wilson had been on duty since 5am that day and dealt with the release of containers. A search recovered part of a gate pass which allowed the lorry and container to leave the port. When the lorry was stopped the remainder of the gate pass was found. Forensic tests linked the gate pass to Wilson.

The next pass in the numerical sequence was found in a desk drawer in Wilson's office.

A board in the office clearly showed customs had ordered the container to be held on the port, so it would have been impossible for Wilson not to have known it should have remained at the docks.

Wilson had a wad of £900 cash on him when he was arrested.

Turner and Frost were arrested on October 28 - Frost at Gatwick on his return from a trip to Bulgaria and Turner at Waterloo after he came back from Bulgaria via France.

Eastabrook was arrested in Duro's café in Wherstead Road on October 27, while Draper was captured in London on October 31.

While awaiting trial Turner's house in Soham was badly damaged in an arson attack on September 14, last year, after tyres were piled up against its front door and set alight. The culprit was never found, even though Turner's young daughter and Russian-born wife were in the house at the time.

Turner was convicted in 2001 for excise fraud in relation to alcohol. As part of the surveillance for that operation Turner, Draper and two other men were seen meeting at McDonald's in Harlow, just off the M11.